Dear Harry Belafonte: Ending Violence Against Women Demands That Men Take Responsibility
"Men, who created violence against women, are the ones who should end violence against women. Let us use this century to be the century where we say we started the mission to end the violence and oppression of women." So said veteran humanitarian, activist and artist Harry Belafonte during his keynote speech at Phi Beta Sigma's Centennial Founders’ Day Gala Saturday night in Washington, D.C.
I agree with Harry Belafonte: men can play a crucial role in ending violence against women. The mission to end violence against and oppression of women was started by women in the same parts of the world that Mr. Belafonte cited as inspiration — the Congo, South Africa, as well as across the United States. Mr. Belafonte cited ongoing issues in these places as inspiration for his new non-profit. A 2008 Washington Post piece written by DeNeen Brown reported on the culture of war and the cycle of sexual violence in Northern Uganda. Brown also wrote a 2004 piece on violence in Haiti. Women-led movements have been working, building and fighting for years and years and years to end these violences. So, what Mr. Belafonte and his organization would be doing is joining a movement that was established by women and continues to be moved and run predominantly by women.
I point that out not because I am interested in creating the kinds of gender wars about "who did what" in terms of the work of ending violence against women, but because Mr. Belafonte is a man who respects history. And, as one who honors history in taking on a mission of this size, it is important to note that he stands on the shoulders of women and stands beside a growing number of men and organizations engaged in this fight. To be sure, the role of men in ending violence against women is crucial. It is major, and it matters.
Mr. Belafonte was being inducted as an honorary member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, one of the largest men’s organizations in the world. He has a long history of activism — national and global — and his human rights record is powerful, personal and global. As a part of his speech on Saturday, he also remarked: "My contribution as a new member of the fraternity is to sucker all of you into coming with me and man up and stand up. When the time comes, we will be in touch and you will be informed to join us in this movement in the 21st century." Mr. Belafone's new non-profit, Sankofa & Justice Equity Fund, is a social justice organization that utilizes the power of culture and celebrity in partnership with activism. It is a space for artists to contribute their talents to build awareness and confront the issues that negatively impact marginalized communities. Mr. Belafonte is part of the American Civil Liberties Union Ambassador Project, which harnesses the power of celebrity by tying influential creative artists in film, television, music and comedy with public education and advocacy for key ACLU issues.
In advocating for men to end violence against women, Mr. Belafonte walks in the company of other black men like Jimmie Briggs of MANup INC.; Tony Porter of "A Call to Men"; Quentin Walcott of CONNECT; and award-winning filmmaker and gender justice activist Byron Hurt, to name just some here in New York City.
The work of ending violence against women by boys and men, of course, already has many inspirational and powerful women. At 2013’s Black Girls Rock, a musical celebration of girls and women of color across the worlds of activism and art, Chicago-based activist Ameena Matthews was honored as a Violence Interrupter, a process that literally interrupts the steps that lead to the acts of violence that transform lives, for example. There are myriad efforts by women and men across these United States and globally working and fighting to end violence against women. That space is open for more, but, to be clear, it is not empty.
Mr. Belafonte also stated during his speech: "We will accept the responsibility for what we have done in the abuse of women and we acknowledge that abuse and we are here to declare ourselves as the tenders to the future to never, ever let our children be the abusers of women in our lifetime." The crowd rose in applause. The president of Phi Beta Sigma, Jonathan A. Mason, responded: "I accept your challenge, and we will make a difference in the community." It was a powerful night celebrating a fraternity, its work, its mission, its vision.
Phi Beta Sigma was founded at Howard University on Jan. 9, 1914. College campuses are active sites of sexual and physical violence. According to the "The Sexual Victimization of College Women," a 2000 Justice Department report, during the course of a typical five-year college career, 20 to 25 percent of women on college campuses become victims of rape. Nearly 10 percent of the 3,951 undergraduate women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) reported in the fall 2008 Historically Black College and University Campus Sexual Assault Study to being the victims of a completed sexual assault since entering college. Eighty to 90 percent of college rapes are with acquaintances not strangers according to the 2005 report, "Sexual Assault on Campus: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It."
My question, given these statistics and Mr. Belafonte's call to action, is more simple and direct: What will this call mean when it comes to creating a process to deal with physical and sexual violence on college campuses as well as in neighborhoods, communities, families, organizations and institutions?
The work is to engage men to create a process and practice to interrupt cycles of violence. The evidence and data is consistent — all of it fatal for women. Violence escalates. Period. What process and practice demands is for men to navigate the turbulent territory of their own emotionality. Violence is local — just like politics; as such, that means the man engaged in that violent act is likely your frat brother, your family member, your homie, someone in your organization or within your political or activist movement. What then?
Platforms don't help this process; often, they hijack it — they convey a politics not matched by a practice. That creates the kind of gender turmoil that provokes accusations and counter-accusations. What it doesn't do is the work of interrupting that cycle of violence, holding that man accountable and teaching men active practices to challenge other men who are violent towards women. The landscape of process is fraught with neglected emotionalities that wreak havoc on often-sophisticated intellects or well-developed platforms and gender justice politics.
All actions that counter the epidemic of physical, sexual, social and emotional violence women face at the hands of men are welcome. We need to address this gap between platforms and process/practice, however. Platforms are powerful. They are important spaces to articulate principles, and they can generate profit. Using that pulpit, that platform to issue a call to action, to engage men is crucial. The challenge, again, is to transform a platform into a process and practice. A platform where you articulate a principle is not the same as creating a process or practice that does the messy, challenging work of interrupting cycles of violence.
Not all men are violent, this we know. This is not about that. This is about being willing to actively participate in the kind of process that means: challenging men; being challenged with your own beliefs; no longer making women responsible for the violence they suffer. In New York City, Walcott — as Executive Director of CONNECT, an organization dedicated to ending interpersonal violence and promoting gender justice — holds monthly all-male roundtables. He also leads accountability circles aimed at interrupting cycles of violence. Walcott explains: "Accountability circles have the ability to address harm and its impact on individuals and communities. They can build safety for the harmed party and hold the responsible party accountable, while transforming the belief systems and the structures that can recreate and perpetuate harm and violence." He continues: "Each circle is different and requires certain elements based on the harm and the level of the participation by both parties and the community. The community plays crucial roles: it keeps the harmed person safe, prevents further harm and it also meets the person responsible for the harm where they are, holding them accountable and doing this without collusion."
Men are indeed crucial to ending the global epidemic of violence against women. It is one of the reasons I, together with Chicago activist and organizer and co-founder of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Women, Mariame Kaba, led #31forMARISSA, a month long campaign inviting a nation of men to stand up in support of the fight for freedom of Florida African American mother Marissa Alexander, who now faces a new trial starting March 31. That campaign also called on men to speak out, to break their silences around domestic violence and the roles of the men in their own circles.
So, Mr. Belafonte is right. The power of men to work to end violence against women is potentially extraordinary. The real challenge for many of those men is engaging in process and practice. Our economy of violence is rich and full — it contains our silence, is bolstered by our defence of the violent and sustained by our shaming and blaming of the violated. That process of interrupting violence cycles represents what I call "emotional justice."
Ending violence against women does not require any more platforms. It demands process, practice and active engagement by men. It calls on men to deal with their emotionality politics and abandon their platforms. It calls on men to understand this: a progressive political perspective is no indicator of a progressive emotionality and it is your emotionality that paralyzes process, that interrupts practice and derails political principle. A platform cannot help you negotiate that. Only doing the work of being challenged and challenging yourself and others enables that.
I honor, respect and admire Mr. Harry Belafonte. It is from that space I ask him this: How will your powerful platform serve the creation of process and the necessary practice by men to end violence against women, Mr. Belafonte?